Christmas ghosts and talking cats at Idbury Woods
3 February 2023
Folklorist Katherine Briggs records a strange tale of travellers lost in the snow and harassed by ghosts, who receive assistance from an unusual source.
This charming legend, recorded in Folklore of the Cotswolds (1974), tells of a group of travellers struggling through a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. They were travelling from Burford and attempting to reach Stow-on-the-Wold in their covered caravans before nightfall when a blizzard caused them to lose their way.
They found themselves in woodland near Idbury which Katherine Briggs claims had a reputation for being haunted, though she doesn't give the exact location of these woods. Suddenly the travellers found their caravans surrounded by ghosts described as 'Snow Foresters' who were soon 'whining and screeching and pattering at the window'.
A boy in one of the caravans heard a mewing and opened the door just wide enough to allow inside a small white kitten! His mother was horrified because white cats were thought to be 'death-tokens' at the time, but the boy remembered a belief that on Christmas Eve, cats could talk if you addressed them in rhyme.
The boy asked the kitten "Is it, Kit-Cat? Tell us that." and the kitten replied, saying "So 'tis"! The kitten went on to tell them that they would be able to find their way safely to Stow if they listened for the tweeting of birds and followed the sound until they heard the bells of Stow church ringing out for Christmas.
This proved true, and the travelers made it to a farm on the outskirts of Stow after hearing hundreds of birds tweeting above the noise of the blizzard and the ghosts, where a farmer gave them shelter until the snowstorm passed. By this point the white kitten had disappeared, and the travellers decided that it hadn't been a kitten at all but a fallen angel looking to do a good deed in order to win its way back to heaven.
On the origin of this story
According to Katherine Briggs in Folklore of the Cotswolds, this story was first told to folklorist Ruth Tongue in 1941 by Aaron Lee, a "Wychwood gipsy," who had heard it as a child in the 1860s. It is undoubtedly a charming story, though it is highly fictionalised and reads more like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale than anything. It's worth noting that Ruth Tongue (1898-1981) is a somewhat controversial figure in the world of folklore, and has been accused of fabricating stories so the above story is perhaps best enjoyed with a pinch of salt!
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by Katherine Briggs (Batsford Books, 1974, ISBN: 0713428317)